Industry Insiders: Adam Tihany, Designer Dude

Since 1978, Tihany Design has held the champion title for worldwide restaurant and hospitality design. The company namesake, architect, and restaurateur, Adam Tihany is the creative force behind Aureole New York and Las Vegas, La Fonda Del Sol, Daniel, Charlie Palmer at The Joule, Le Cirque, and Per Se among other fine-dining establishments. His design work in hotels includes One&Only Cape Town, Mandarin Oriental Geneva and Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental Landmark. The top name in hospitality design shares a look inside his boutique agency and list of posh accomplishments.

How would you describe yourself? I’ve been called all kinds of things. You can call me a designer who has done a lot.

What are some of your favorite recent projects? Aureole at Bryant Park Place. The art is pretty mind-boggling and will transform it into something quite exciting. We recently renovated Daniel, and that has been quite successful and received favorably. We just completed La Fonda Del Sol at the Met Life building. Also a happening place. We finished the One & Only Hotel in Cape Town. I designed the whole hotel; every single corner, nook, cranny, suites spas and two restaurants, Nobu and Gordon Ramsay.

You do have the Midas touch. You can bring a horse to water, but if the chef doesn’t follow suit, you fail. Fortunately, we’ve tried with great chefs and great staffers. Restaurants should be showcases for food and not for design. I’ve been called a “portrait artist” or a “custom tailor.” I try to do spaces that reflect the personality of the owner, their brand of hospitality, their aspirations, and in the process — especially when you work with celebrity chefs — you end up doing a portrait of them. It’s true for Per Se’s Thomas Keller, and Daniel Boulud.

How’d you end up in this business? I believe I’m the first person in this country to call themselves a restaurant designer. I didn’t coin the phrase, but I started it. I went to school in Milan in the late 60s. During my time there, there was really not much work in architecture in Europe, particularly in Italy, so designers and architects designed furniture and graphic art, product design, anything they could put their hands on. That was the birth of contemporary Italian design, When I immigrated to the States, people would ask me what I do, and I’d say, “Give me the problems, I’ll design the solution.” But they wanted me to be specific. Everybody needed a niche, so you had to specialize. For years I refused to do it. I got involved with everything from night clubs to department stores and apartments, and then in the late 70s, somebody asked me to design a restaurant, and it so happened to be that it was to be one of the grand cafes of the city: La Cupole on Park Avenue South. When they opened, they became instantly famous. I did the architecture, the furniture, the uniforms, lighting, everything. I found in restaurants all of the things that I like to do. I bought a sign: Adam Tihany, Restaurant Designer. A roll of the dice, and here we are.

What are your spots? First, the new Cigar Bar and Lounge at the Lanesborough in London. Always Daniel in New York City and Jean-George’s Market at the One&Only Palmilla in Cabo San Lucas.

Who’s doing it right in the restaurant business? There are so many incredible people, and today we’re at the threshold of sensory overload with food and restaurants with what’s on television alone. There are people who are wonderful, long standing people I have learned from tremendously, among them Sirio Maccioni. We‘ve been working together for 25 years. George Lang is a person I met early in my career who is a friend and mentor. From the contemporary group, I would say Thomas Keller.

How do your operations run? My employees used to have to work and live in restaurants to see what it was really like — the back of the house, away from the silver and pretty flowers. That accounts for a lot of my clients, who see me as a colleague, but as a designer who’s got it inside and out. I know the business. When you deal with bigwig hotel suppliers or small boutique owners, we’re not just doing the interior; we live and breathe what we profess. Can’t make too many mistakes.

Current trends in restaurants? It delights me that in the past 26 years, dining is a day-to-day activity, and so much a part of the psyche. Restaurants are clean and safe. You go for two hours to another environment, another culture where people can’t really have their own kitchen and treat going out as second nature, a complete necessity, not a choice. With that comes responsibility and sophistication and people are selective. They really care. I like it when people send food back, although some people will eat garbage rather than return a dish. That alone keeps anyone in the kitchen on their toes as they’re working for a discriminate customer.

Anything you want to change? Cooking shows drive me nuts. Not the ones that are actually about cooking but the chef talk and the reality shows. They’re about success and failure, and I find that humiliating.

Guilty pleasures? I love the travel end of my lifestyle. I’m an avid traveler and an avid hotel dweller. If it was up to me, I would live only in hotels. I am a cigar aficionado, and I know a thing or two about single malt scotch whiskey.

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